Vaccinate the children, please!


  • naturalLy
  • Saturday, 09 Mar 2019

Stop debating whether vaccines are halal when children’s health is at stake. 

IN my past life as a virologist, I gave public lectures to promote the uptake of the cervical cancer vaccine Gardasil.

At the time this vaccine was newly developed, its therapeutic potential was yet to be ascertained and its development involved what was then a novel method in vaccine-making, where the protein coat of the virus was grown synthetically in a lab.

This last point set this particular vaccine apart from others. Most vaccines are viruses that either had their infectious ability weakened, known as attenuated vaccines, or contain naturally occurring viruses that had been killed using chemicals like formaldehyde.

In theory, a vaccine works by prepping a body’s immunity against future viral infection. This happens by exposing a person’s immune system to the virus “just enough” to raise immunity against said virus, but not enough to cause harm.

Over the decades, vaccines have developed from crude methods that involved scientists ingesting mucus-like substances containing infected cells to test whether they had raised immunity to a fully lab-grown synthetic protein that mimics a viral coat protein with the same efficacy as weakened, naturally-occurring viruses; a procedure that minimises harm to animals or humans through unethical testing.

That is how far science has come in 2019 from the very first documentation of the existence of viruses in the 1890s.

Thus, imagine my consternation when after my lectures, the first two questions asked were “Is it halal certified?” and “Will it cause my daughter to be sexually promiscuous?”

A 2017 study by Noor Ani Ahmad et al in the Journal of Vaccines and Vaccination provided some data on this phenomenon. The researchers found that 4.6% of Malaysian children aged 12-23 months did not complete their primary immunisation as scheduled, from a sample of 11,388 respondents (89% response rate).

Many of the mothers to these children either had “no time” or “forgot” to bring their children for scheduled vaccination, or refused vaccination due to “doubt of halal status” or “do not trust vaccine’s safety”.

Most of these mothers are urbanites and had their pregnancy care in private clinics (for more details on this study, refer to their paper at doi:10.4172/2157-7560.1000358).

For the record, most – if not all – vaccines in Malaysia must get halal certification. Regardless of whether they are synthetically grown in the lab or are weakened human viruses grown in cell culture of human cells, pharma companies would pay a certification body to receive a piece of certification with the halal logo.

If you follow the cost trail to having this certification, the buck is almost always borne by us taxpayers. Worse, the statement by a dep­uty minister recently only escalated the misconception of the halal status of vaccines.

May I ask what further halal-ness it requires? Should the biotechnicians only be Muslims and the lab cleaned through sertu – the Islamic practice of cleansing a physical space using dirt and water?

Laboratories producing vaccines are normally kept sterile as cross-contamination risks killing cells and viruses being cultured. It is redundant for a lab to undergo sertu.

As for the second question, it saddens me that parents would jump to such conclusions before considering that something could save their daughters from having cervical cancer. A direct answer to the question is that there is no correlation.

A vaccine only works against a particular virus – in this case, the cervical cancer vaccine only works against the Human Papilloma Virus, the virus known to cause cervical cancer. A sexually active person still risks infection from other sexually transmitted viruses such as HIV, or sexually transmitted bacteria such as gonorrhea.

Being vaccinated does not increase promiscuity. Nor does it cause autism; a downright lie. I elaborated at length on this debate in a previous column dated July 2, 2016 (https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/naturally/2016/07/02/herd-immunity-vs-herd-mentality-the-first-inoculation-may-have-been-less-than-ethical-scientifically/).

Vaccination causes herd immunity. When many people are vaccinated, they create a population that is immune to the virus, thus reducing the risk of infection to those who are not vaccinated or are immunocompromised and naturally cannot raise resistance against the said virus.

When more people refuse vaccination, the protection is weakened, leading to the return of a disease caused by viruses and yet another public health epidemic.

Trust me, if you have actually read through enough literature (i.e. the compendium that is Fields Viro­logy – textbooks for many science students), you would not want to see the return of smallpox (eradicated in 1980), polio or any virally borne disease for that matter.

It saddens me to have this debate in 2019. It further disappoints me that the Health Ministry is mooting compulsory vaccination – this shows how poor our scientific education to the masses has been.

In this age of social media and digitalisation, we should have cured cancer, eradicated diseases and allowed for more humans to lead a comfortable, healthy life to an average age of mortality.

Instead, we are still debating whether vaccines are halal and being lackadaisical about vaccination without giving a second thought to our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

So here’s my call to parents – vaccinate your children, please. There is no other way around it.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist turned policy nerd living in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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